Which nickname sounds a bit out of place: “The Athens of America,” “The Cradle of Liberty,” “The Hub of the Universe,” or “Beantown”? New England’s largest city goes by all four aliases, yet the last one sticks out. So, how did Boston get such an odd title in the first place?
There’s no definite answer, but this hasn’t stopped historians from speculating. One theory hinges on the fact that Massachusetts has long been noted for its baked beans, a tradition dating back to its Native American roots. However, in the late 1600s, the area was synonymous with a very different product: rum.
Along with their neighbors in Rhode Island, Massachusettsans distilled alcohol, enabling their colony to break into the notorious “triangle trade.” Boston’s booze was usually taken to Africa, where it would be exchanged for new enslaved people. The enslaved people were, in turn, taken to sugar plantations in the Caribbean, where they were forced to produce (among other things) molasses, a key ingredient in rum.
But molasses shipped to Boston for distilling served another culinary function: colonists started putting it in their baked beans. Native Americans were already preparing beans with maple syrup, but this new preparation method spread across the greater Boston area. Eventually—according to legend—sailors and merchants on the triangular route began calling the city “Bean Town.”
Another story paints a very different picture. Boston hosted a Civil War veterans’ convention during the summer of 1890. To commemorate this gathering, the Beverly Pottery Company handed out small, ribbon-bound bean pots as souvenirs. Afterwards, when asked where they’d gotten such neat little gifts, many of the vets supposedly replied “bean-town.”
Then again, perhaps a publicity gimmick is to blame. In 1907, Boston threw its first annual Old Home Week. Former residents were encouraged to revisit their old haunts during a week-long celebration. An aggressive advertising campaign helped draw continental attention to the event, with posters and stickers being distributed nationwide, many of which included wholesome sketches of bean pots. As the yearly shindig grew, tourism slogans like “You Don’t Know Beans Until You Come to Boston” also started catching on. Theoretically, “beantown” might have been born in the process.
A version of this story originally ran in 2014; it has been updated for 2023.